What’s Wrong with the Computer Metaphor of Autism

by Kristina Chew

The computer is often cited as a metaphor for how the autistic mind works. Temple Grandin notes that her mind works according to the same associative processes that we use in surfing the Internet: We click on a link on her website about equipment for handling livestock and then find ourselves at one for computer simulations of flocking birds, because their behavior has many similarities to cattle forming herds. “Each memory that I have comes up like a website,” Grandin noted in a 2000 article in Computerworld . Grandin has also compared her mind to a library of videotapes to explain how she “thinks in pictures.” And a journal for speech-language pathologistsnotes that autism is not something that one “outgrows,” and that, “‘Using a computer metaphor, it’s like rewriting code around bad code in a computer program.'”

Metaphors of the machine have long been used to describe persons with autism; Bruno Bettelheim’s account of “Joey: The Mechanical Boy” appeared in Scientific American in March of 1959. The machine metaphor can even be seen as embedded in the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for autism, as it lists “stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms eg [sic]: hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements” as examples of the “restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour, interests and activities” used to diagnose autism. Kids with autism are said to move their bodies in a machine-like manner.

Jim and I had a a “eureka” moment a few years ago when, at the annual COSAC conference, we heard a speech pathologist, Ann Gerenser, speak on autism and apraxia. She mentioned that, due to difficulties with auditory processing combined with an apraxic child’s difficulties with motor planning, children are prone to imitate the sounds of mechanical devices. “Of course that’s why Charlie makes the sounds of his grandparents’ garage door opening and closing, when under stress!” we said to each other. We have since noted that Charlie has a routine of the beeping of the microwave oven (signalling, the waffle is ready!) and of his various toy computers, including Alphabert with his opening sequence of musical beep notes. A machine’s sounds are ever the same and, for a child like Charlie who struggles to listen to and to say the sounds of language all around him, a huge relief.

This is not to say, though, that Charlie is a “mechanical boy” as Bettelheim wrote of Joey, or that his mind functions more like a computer than like, well, those of his all too human parents. It is easier for Charlie to imitate the beeps and whirrs and clicks of my in-laws’ double garage doors because they are always the same. They are predictable, while who knows what will come out of our mouths.

We do tend to address Charlie in a rather scripted language of short, familiar phrases: “You did it! Great job. Good job. School tomorrow. Time for all done, all done now. You got it! Put coat on chair. Do you want barn plate or Blue plate? Shirt on! Hat on! Later.” In the past year, Charlie has often parroted these phrases back with a mischievous, mocking sparkle in his eye, as if to tease us about the “orders” we expect him to do: “Aw dunn way-ter. Aw-dunn Chaw-wee, aw dunn! Skool toomahroe. Skool toomohroe. Gate job oo diditt!” (So much for Theory of Mind, the theory that autistic individuals do not have empathy and cannot imagine what another person is thinking: Charlie knows when we are issuing orders and knows how to annoy by doing quite the opposite.)

The computer metaphor floated around the discussion in the Autism and Representation conference that Jim and I returned from today. It was a historical event, the first time that there has been such a discussion not only of “what autism is,” but of what autism means in and for our culture and society, and for how our culture and society conceives of and constructs autism. I do think that the “computer metaphor of the autistic mind” can be limiting and, indeed, misleading. Charlie is more likely to imitate the sounds of a mechanical toy (Alphabert) than Jim or me expatiating on the upcoming election for the next governor of New Jersey. But that does not mean that he would prefer to imitate such beeps and whirrs, or that he would prefer to be something mechanical. It is simply easier for Charlie to imitate a machine than a human being who is forever creating different sentences, new ideas, trying out new means of verbal expression.

Over-reliance on the computer metaphor of autism also leads us to assume that kids with autism would rather exist in the routine, predictable world of a machines. Charlie appreciates routine but that does not, I think, mean that he likes it. He knows that our family is “mommy daddy Cholly” but continually calls for visitors: “Gong Gong Po Po. Mike Wucy [his godparents]. Tara back. Sara. How back. Pah-trice. Gramma Granpa Aunty Joan Rocco doggy Portia doggy Miss Greene.” Hellos and good-byes are difficult for Charle, but that does not mean that we should avoid them. We rather need to teach him how to handle such transitions.

Jim and I drove up in the black car Sunday evening, after more than two days away in Cleveland for the conference. I glimpsed Charlie standing with my mom in the living room, and then Charlie running out as Jim and I walked out of the car. “Hey pal,” said Jim; Charlie ran to look in the back window of our stationwagon, to make sure the blue boogie board–a hopeful symbol of his yearning to be at the ocean–was still there, where he had put it. “Come on in, honey,” I said, and he ran in. Charlie was a serious gent all evening, all big brown eyes and (Jim swore) taller than ever (alas, he was to wear Jim’s old Pittsburgh Pirates jacket for his Halloween costume and Charlie barely fits it!).

My parents had taken Charlie to New York, rode the subway, gone to Central Park. He refused (in some loud form, I imagined) to let my dad carry down his and my mom’s suitcases. The five of us went out for a quick dinner, then went back to our house. Charlie was smiley and got his “hot showa,” then demanded (at the early hour of 9.15pm) “beddtime.” He pulled his mattress off the boxspring, ran downstairs, saw the suitcases, and started a loud cry-whine. My mom and dad said their good-byes and went off with Jim. I pulled up the blind on the window and Charlie watched the loading of the suitcases and the driving off of the black car and threw himself (he is one for melodrama) onto the couch.

“Mommy bedtime! Mommy stairs!”

“Do you want to go up-stairs?” I asked, sitting beside himself and placing one hand on the back of his big head.

“Beddtime. Yess.” Charlie did not budge.

“Do you want Mommy to carry you?”

“Yess.”

I got Charlie into a sitting position; he put his head onto my right shoulder as he always does when he’s really tired and groggy. I carried him, rather slowly, up the stairs, wrapped him in Daddy’s blue blanket, and said “good night.” “Mommy stairs,” said Charlie, and down I went.

The crying went on for no more than ten minutes. Jim came back, hastened up the stairs and then down. “He’s out,” he said, heading into the kitchen for the newspaper. “He sure has a deep emotional life.” And sure belies all those psychoanalytic theories—–

Of course Charlie loves, has feelings, feels pain and sorrow and suffers; feels joy and delight and gladness. The fallacy of the computer metaphor of the autistic mind is that it makes the autistic person “other,” different, more machine and less human like. Charlie is, as I have often thought and as another conference participant noted, “too human.” He feels just as much and more than the rest of us, and with a sensory system so often so in need of sensory stimulation and input that he was very happy tonight to wear a heavy fleece glove on his right hand: Something about the deep pressure of the glove and the fleece.

The computer metaphor of autism is a creation of us non-autistic persons’ attempts to understand autism. “What autism is” is not about computers, or machines. It is about Charlie, and kids like him, and autistic persons like him on the spectrum, and it is high time that we began to search and to create new metaphors, new ways of talking about autism. And the time to start is right now.

About the Author: Kristina Chew is a Classics professor at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey; mother of a teenage son, Charlie, who’s on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum; a translator and teacher of Latin and ancient Greek; and a blogger, at My Son Has Autism/Autismland (2005-2008), Autism Vox (2006-08), and Change.org (2008-09). She is currently writing a book about her family’s life on the long road with Charlie and translating the work of two Roman poets, Catullus and Virgil. She also blogs about education, disability, and health policy at Care2.com.

What’s Wrong with the Computer Metaphor of Autism first appeared on her blog, We Go With Him, and is reprinted here by permission.

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3 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with the Computer Metaphor of Autism

  1. Jayn says:

    Sometimes I use a record metaphor when it comes to dealing with the unexpected. It goes something like this–we all have mental ‘grooves’ the rely to various trains or methods of thought. One for work, one for school, one for talking to in-laws…you get the idea. I see mine as being deeper than normal. What that means is that once I switch to a new ‘groove’, I settle in very easily, rather than the needle skittering across the record surface, but it can take some time to push myself out of the previous one, more than for the average person.

    I generally find the computer metaphor more all-purpose, but when it comes to more fluid, less predicatble situations like conversations, the record one seems to fit better.

  2. Ben S says:

    I’ve long been uncomfortable having myself compared to a computer, no matter how helpful a shorthand it might be for non-autistic people. It’s nice to know that there are people who make the time and effort to understand the complexities of someone different than themselves.

  3. Ben also makes mechanical sounds. The first time I really became aware of it was after his birthday party at the bowling alley. To this day, 10 years later he can make the same sound and it is so realistic: the ball going down the alley and then hitting the pins! When he was young and very echolalic, he used to mimic the speech patterns, pitch, volume…true echolalia where he even sounded like the original speaker. He still makes many sounds, and I see it as a gift. It “is” entertaining! I have no idea how he does it.

    I think our kids have a different affinity towards sound. To capture the essence, regardless of source, is an interesting phenomena. I wonder, if instead of reading faces, they read sounds. I firmly believe that all of life is yin/yang…that there is a balance. In autism, much is taken, but much abides. We just haven’t been curious enough to learn the reasons.

    The thing about the computer is, it is another case of being “less than human.”

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